Vancouver: A City With More Residence Than Workers

•2011/10/10 • 1 Comment

Canada’s 8th largest city with a population of 642,843 and a metropolitan area of 2,328,000 people can be celebrated not only for its beautiful geographical surrounds, but for its excellent land use practices which have only enhanced the natural environment.

Vancouver was founded as a Canadian port city by the British for trade with countries across the Pacific. By the early 1900’s Vancouver developed into a flourishing port city, being the terminating point for the Canadian Pacific Railway, leading to transportation, operational and  logistics management and the harvesting of natural resources to become the biggest drivers of the city’s economy.  As the demand for natural resources grew, so did the city.

The extensive trade network which was made possible by Vancouver’s geographic location, has allowed for  further development as the demand for natural resources have grown in direct correlation with China’s rapid urbanization.  The city’s ability to harvest, process and deliver construction material has not increased only through exportation; it has  substantially  grown due to high amounts of recent residential development around the city center.

The majority new development has been largely funded by Hong Kong investors, some due to speculation leading up to and following the 2010 winter Olympics, but a majority which has met increasing demands of a growing population. (As of January 2009, Vancouver held less than a 1% vacancy rate on residential apartments)  The new density in part can be attributed to the city’s adoption of smart growth principals which have tried to limit the amount of sprawling development outside the city center, in the hopes to limit heavy investment in additional automobile infrastructure.

As a result of policy, demand, speculation and zoning Vancouver illustrates intelligent land use principals, ones which produce an incredibly unique and clear diagram when compared to various cities I observed around the US.

Due to the city’s coastline, land has been placed at a premium, and intelligent use of space has become inherent to the city’s development.  The two major routes of transportation to the heart of the CBD have been developed into major commercial corridors for ground level retail, which transition and vary as they pass through the neighboring districts. The center of the bulbous peninsula harbors the majority of work space which has preferenced the areas closer to the coastline for prime residential development. As an alternative to utilizing the edge of the city’s coast for infrastructure (as is the case in many cities around the US) and by instead moving those routes inward, residential high rises have benefitted by holding unobstructed access to the water for parkways and water recreation for the wealthy tenants. This has allowed for some of the most profitable real estate per square foot to boast the greatest amenities as well, allowing these sites to yield even higher returns. Vancouver’s CBD in effect becomes near hidden in the skyline, crowded out by residential towers which occupy the perimeter. While this creates a somewhat unique form of urbanism, the unfortunate effect is that this has produced some of the highest living expenses in the world with the average home price at $987,500 as of April 2010.

While in many ways this land use has prioritized the mega rich, what I found fascinating about Vancouver was the use of ‘in-between’ spaces which did not fall into the predominate diagram. The city’s East end, has preserved dozens of pre-1900’s masterpieces from the areas early wealth as a shipping hub.

While still active industrial sites, such as the one imaged below, almost seamlessly integrate itself into one of Vancouver’s design schools coupled with a converted warehouse retail district and a series of residential units within walking distance.

And of course, one of the most well-known assets to Vancouver is its beloved Stanley Park.  Which for all intense and purposes can be seen to function as a natural reserve literally inches away from a grand metropolis, allowing for terrific 360 degree views of the city and its surrounding areas.

The beauty of this planning which has led to dense, walk able live/work/play conditions that is the mantra of progressive 21st century cities, leaves still very important questions which smart growth and speculative development fails to answer, and a problem that urban economist Edward Glasser identifies in his book the Triumph of the City.

Is it possible to generate desirable dense urban areas that are affordable to more that the top 1% wage earners?  Now that more than 50% of the world’s population lives in what is defined as a urban area, how can we ensure these regions to be available to all? What does the new economy have to look like in order to ensure this? What will our cities have to look like in order to make this possible? One could only hope that an intelligently designed city such Vancouver will hopefully find ways to answer these troubling questions in its years to come.


Seattle: Europe, Japan, and Koolhaas, all under one grey sky

•2011/09/20 • 1 Comment

As this Blog is somewhat devoted to understanding the occurrence of cities historic growth or decline and consider what leading factors have contributed to these changes, I found the form of Seattle’s population trends somewhat unique.  Like many cities in the US, Seattle hit its peak around 1960 with 557,087 people only to fall in 1980  to 493,846. It wasn’t until the most recent census that the city realized its greatest density with 608,660 residence and suggesting further growth in sight.

The element which struck me about Seattle was that it happened to boast one of the most varied cityscapes for a place its size.  Aided by geographical constrains of rolling hills sloping down towards the Puget Sound, the city takes multiple forms and generates distinct urban neighborhoods in a relatively small area.  Good urban planning and preservation has undoubtedly contributed to the city’s ability to achieve this, but economic transition through Microsoft and other tech companies’ development have made new growth possible.

On the first day of my visit, I parked towards the east side of the university, and walked down the pike street commercial corridor. Before walking over route 5 I was miandered through a neighborhood which overlooked Seattle’s CBD and took on a quiet Western European type attitude, fully equiped with a moped.

What is now one of the largest tourist attractions of the city was at one point facing the bull dozier as the city’s population was migrating out to the ‘burbs. In an attempt to bring people back into the city Pike Place Market was slated for demolition to be turned into a series of high rise condominiums, office buildings complete with a nine story parking garage directly connected to the interstate system.  As preservation movement to save the market and open it back up to its historical purpose of an area for commerce, architectural professor Victor Steinbrueck, over saw grass-root efforts to protect the site.  Decades later, this move proved to help bring an estimated $86.8 million in gross revenues year, employ’s an average of 1,900 persons and brings in $7.2 million in taxes per year. While motivated out of a preservationist desire, coupled with entrepreneurial visionaries the market has proved to be a vital tourist attraction and economic generator for the city.


Spokane: From Waterfalls to Indoor Malls

•2011/08/05 • 3 Comments

Spokane, located near the Idaho-Washington boarder has been experiencing a fairly consistent population growing rate of 5-15% every decade. Originally settled for its proximity to the Spokane River which lead to an explosive growth of sawmills to process the abundance of lumber in the Pacific Northwest. It has gradually transitioned into of an information based economy focusing on high-tech and biotech markets while natural resource harvesting and processing still makeup a significant proportion of  Spokane’s overall employment and GDP.

Through the city’s more recent development, there have been strong amounts of investment in the downtown region. With the opening of a 3 story mall near the heart of downtown, the Spokane’s CBD is now woven together through a series 2nd floor sky bridges which generate a new internal retain network within the city.  With the median household income being just slightly above the national average at $56,548, the city has struggled some to support 2 floors of retail space throughout its city center, as can be shown through some commercial vacancy on both the street and skyway level.

Overall the city has displayed the ability to modify its market diversification throughout economic tansition’s while continuing to be a valuable place due to its access to natural resources. As was true with all the cities I visited throughout the pacific northwest, their proximity to raw building materials and offering shorter transportation routes to export to the growing Eastern Hemisphere, has placed them in a good position for economic expansion as Asian cities continue to develop.

In addition to Spokane’s market activity, there is another reason why this  city continues to make itself relevant in a transitional world.  I happened to visit during the weekend when the city hosts hoop-fest, an annual weekend long street basketball competition in which a wide variety of age ranges compete over different courts and attracts visitors from all around the nation.  For this event Spokane shuts down over to 12 city blocks and modifies the street scape into rows of basketball courts fully supplied with street vendors and recorded music playing from speakers off modified street lamps.

Walking around rows and rows of basketball courts, became a surreal experience and a flury of activity, helping to take what would have been a dull empty series of streets  and turning them into a place to experience the collective.  While the cities of the West did not always embody the urban density of eastern cities, the series of festival and events clearly illustrate the citizens desire to experience public space, even if the sprawling built landscape does not always enable it.

Book Review: Downtown, INC

•2011/07/20 • 1 Comment

Downtown, INC. written by  Bernard J Frieden and Lynne Sagalyn, professors of Urban Study at MIT was published in 1992 and covers close to 50 years of urban transition through looking at the changes that have occurred to the American city. Through analyzing realized urban projects in a case study method in multiple cities through out the US, and basing these findings in  imperial evidence, official reports and interviews, this book a offers a far more scientific approach relative to other urban theory literature.  While undoubtedly the authors have a certain personal perspectives and agendas (as all authors do) in my belief Frieden and Sagalyn have make a strong attempt to draw factual conclusions about the way in which the process from numerous movements in urban renewal have attempted to keep the project of  the American city intact from sprawl and have shaped its condition today.

While some of the information they offer may not be revolutionary by any means to people who are already familiar with the process of ‘slum clearing’ for interstate highways, and the numerous large scale urban renewal projects of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s; the explanation of how this story related to the process and changes that were occurring in suburban development during this time I found quite enlightening.  Additionally the book offers an interesting perspective by analyzing some of the projects that were actually successful  during this time in achieving active public spaces, and how these projects contrasted to the others which had failed to achieve this.

I ended up purchasing this book in Portland, and since that time have been trying to visit the projects they referenced in the book when possible. Through doing this, one thing that was made clear to me,  is that it is definitely time for these authors to produce an updated edition.  As much changed about the American city from 1930’s t0 1992, a significant amount has changed in the last 20 years as well.  As a means to help fill this void, I am hoping my recent purchase on Portland’s urban planning will help shed some light on more recent urban planning and the effects this has produced.

In the mean time I highly recommend this book to any architect, developer, urban designer, urban planner, landscape architect, community developer or anyone who is planning on affecting the urban condition in any way shape or form. So that we can learn from some of the well intentioned (and at times very well intentioned) but flawed thinking of the past and will not have to tragically repeat these mistakes which carry great social and environmental consequences.

The Great Outdoors: God, a Better Architect that I

•2011/07/13 • 2 Comments

The Badlands, South Dakota

Black Hills, South Dakota

Montana via I-90

Washington via I-90

Stanley Park- Vancouver, British Columbia

Lassen Park- Northern California

(For the record I did manage to move this a little.)

Sioux Falls, SD: Event Space in the Village sized City

•2011/07/12 • 1 Comment

Reflecting upon my unexpected stop in Sioux Falls and Billings, Montana I could not help but consider what these cities suggested about the process in which  America’s geography, philosophy, culture and human nature have become realized through the project of the American city.

Both cities were surrounded by a gently scattered single family homes, centering around a ‘dense’ core of the CBD which bolstered 1-6 story tall buildings and ‘urban neighborhoods’ which consisted of a few blocks outside the core of more densely packed single family homes.  Both cities were positioned in areas with few geographical constraints, and with little signs of civilization within a 4 hour drive in any direction.

Given the sheer size of the US, manifest destiny attitude, desire for private property rights in a wild west manner, all strung together through a transportation system which gives privilege to the car, it is somewhat of a surprise that these areas had urban centers of a sort at all. But the fact that both Sioux Falls and Billings were using their center as a place for large scale event space I believe speaks to a human desire which we have to experience the collective.

Given today’s society in which practically all shopping can be done online, in a cheaper, typically less time consuming manner (far less time spent in travel) it would be reasonable to have expected physically shopping centers to be largely on the decline.  Yet we see them continuing the thrive in both suburban and urban settings.  The reality that we exist within a society in which social interaction and physical experience is valued. And it is these factors that will maintain the need for a central city, even if its just to use for the evening.


Madison: The Urban Mall

•2011/06/28 • 4 Comments

Acting as Wisconsin’s state capital, and home to the University of Wisconsin, Madison has been gifted with two large stable institutions less than a mile apart.  Over the past 10 years Madison has been cited in the US census and Forbes magazine as having consistently one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country (currently at 5.2%), and over the past 30 years has seen an average population  growth rate of 10% a year (roughly 20,000 people every 10 years).

Simply put Madison has some great tenants.  The University of Wisconsin has been gradual increasing enrollment since 1848, now just over 43,000 students. And with a number of government function centering around the city, over 27.26% of the employed population is in the public sector (equating to 67,961 government employees in Madison County).

Before arriving in Madison I consulted a few past visitors and they all made it quite clear that I had to check out State Street.  Roughly 3,200ft long, State Street is a straight  pedestrian road which connects the State capital building to the University of Wisconsin.  Lined with over 300 shops, most of which are local start ups or franchises, State Street is able to cater to the student population with a mixture of restaurants, bars, clothing stores, coffee shops, hair salons, book stores, liquor stores, and miscellaneous consumer goods.  Over the half mile stretch, as you walk away from the university the percentage of bars give way to the sale of more household goods and even a hardware store.  Throughout the length of State Street the number of restaurants and clothing stores stayed fairly consistent.

What I found to be very interesting about this urban plan, was the fact that it demonstrated a very active outdoor pedestrian mall and seemed to stick out in people’s minds as a must see in Madison.  So I had to ask myself why State Street seems to work when so many other pedestrian streets have failed? Those who are familiar with Downtown Buffalo will sometimes attribute the downfall of Main Street due to restricting vehicle access in favor of light rail and a pedestrian street.  But one look at State Street proves that pedestrian malls can be quite successful, even in cities where the weather is not always the nicest.  (winter reaches below freezing temperatures and are known for receiving moderate to heavy snowfall)

I believe the success of Madison’s State St can largely be attributed to good mall planning principals.  For one it is located in an area where the demographics have more disposable incomes (ie. single college students) and it is of appropriate length based upon the number of its users (while it is close to a mile long when factoring in the side streets, it serves close to 100,000 people during the academic calendar).  It also uses one of the most common shopping mall design practices, through the use of two large ‘anchor tenants’ using the University of Madison and the State capital one either ends of the street helping to insure longevity and permanence.

Several cities into the trip there is one strong trend that is reining true regardless of city size.  The cities who’s populations are growing have well defined retail districts built within their urban fabric.  Other amenity offerings in terms of green space, waterfront development or art museums seem to carry very little relevance in light of whether or not there is the ability to shop downtown. More on this thought to come…